Race Reports

North Pole Marathon

April 9 15, 2018

This was a big experience.  There’s a reason so many people who run this race wind up self-publishing a book about it.  I thought I’d do my write-up this time as a FAQ, to try and organize my scattered thoughts.  Most of these are actual questions that friends and co-workers have asked me.  Can you guess which ones aren’t?  Book may or may not be forthcoming 😉

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How cold was it?

At the time the race was run, the temperature was around -30 to -35 degrees C (-22 to -31 F).   We had great weather – bright, clear and calm – which I think was a major factor in the director’s decision to start the race at 10:30 PM, just a short time after the final group arrived at Camp Barneo.   The horizon did start to haze up the following morning as the rear guard were still out on the course, and clouded over later.  Overall, I think we had much better conditions than they did at this year’s Boston Marathon, when you take into consideration how the runners had dressed in anticipation for the day.

Q: Was the race really at the North Pole?

The start line was 89°34’00″N, 91°44’31″E, roughly 30 miles from the geographic North Pole.  The camp drifts with the ice.  After the marathon everyone took helicopters to the Pole.  There’s no permanent marker, so we brought along one provided by the Camp for photo ops.

Q: What was the course like?

The course was a ~2.6-mile loop run on the sea ice, with an opportunity to step into the mess tent to warm up at the end of each loop.  Think ice floes are flat?  They’re frozen undulating ocean, the troughs filled with dry, incredibly fine white powder, and pressure ridges forcing blue blocks of ice into low walls piled with snow.  A short portion of the loop ran down the airstrip, where the snow had been scraped away by bulldozers and the ice leveled to make landing of the flight from Svalbard possible. 

Q: How did you train? Did you train for the cold?

Obviously there’s not a lot of opportunity for training in the snow in southern Arizona.  Among my takeaways from the Antarctic Ice Marathon was that running on snow – the uneven, unpredictable terrain sliding in random directions underfoot without warning – required the same kind of alertness and skill set as trail running the crumbling granite hills around Phoenix.  And the same tired muscles in weird places afterwards!  I signed up for Aravaipa’s DRT trail racing series, including their Evolution Pass, while doing the occasional training run out at Pass Mountain and grinding out most of my training miles on the local roads.

Some people from warm climates, like a South African couple at this year’s race, trained for the cold by renting a deep freeze and putting a treadmill inside.  I neglected to ask them afterwards whether it helped.  In my experience it’s psychological rather than physical; at temperatures that low the cold feels more like pain than cold, and it’s weird to have ice crystals on your eyelashes and snot freeze in your nose.  If you’re properly dressed the temperature won’t be a dealbreaker.

Q: How did you dress?

  • Feet:
    • Hoka One One Stinson trail shoes,
    • thick alpaca socks with thin silk sock liners. 
    • Also chemical toe warmers that didn’t work.
  • Lower half:
    • Base Layer: Winter-weight running tights,
    • Thermal layer: midweight fleece pants,
    • Wind shell: Eddie Bauer Duraweave Alpine pants (serious heavy-duty gear that I had to cut down for length and “hem” using duct tape that mostly held for the duration of the race.)
  • Torso:
    • Base layer: InkNBurn pullover (heavyweight technical shirt),
    • Thermal: Midweight fleece pullover,
    • Wind shell: Land’s end waterproof jacket
  • Head:
    • Buff, later swapped out for a thin balaclava and my Untraced breath mask,
    • Oakley A-frame goggles,
    • alpaca hat with earflaps
  • Hands:
    • Dakine thermal mittens (without liners)
    • Chemical handwarmers

The “serious” runners seemed to have fewer layers down below, and probably more technical kit.  Many people taped their faces, in particular their noses, to stave off frostbite.  I was fine without, but I did stop and get warmed up in the mess tent almost every loop.

What I wished I’d had was a pair of down-filled trousers to wear while not racing.  I couldn’t find any locally, it got down to the wire, and I thought “eh, I’ll be OK!”  But I would’ve been a lot more comfortable with them, especially when we wound up spending more time on the ice than scheduled.

Q: What kind of other supplies did you need?

Barneo Camp provides packet coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cookies 24/7, and basic meals at set times, so in addition to any performance drinks or goodies you need during the race, it’s good to bring some extra food, which you can easily buy at the supermarket in Longyearbyen.  Because of the “odd” start time, I wound up slurping a cup-o-soup (pot noodle) right before the start.  During the race I had a hot drink at every loop, and dipped into the bag of dates I bought in Longyearbyen.  I also ate the two Mojo bars I brought from home.  Not touched: the GUs and Sports Beans – I needed stuff with substance.

USB batteries to recharge my electronics probably wasn’t needed, but I felt better having them topped off.

Q: Is there anything else you didn’t bring that wished you had brought?

Yes!  iPod, toothbrush/toothpaste, bottled water (the water at Barneo is hot, melted seawater -slightly salty.  Bottled fresh water is available for sale, also a limited selection of booze at a markup – you’re paying for location.)

When the word came down to be ready in the morning, it was a mad last-minute scramble to decide what went in the bag and what stayed behind in the hotel. 

Q: How long does it take to get there?

Overnight from North America to Oslo.  I took the short flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen the next day.  The flight from Longyearbyen to Barneo by private plane is roughly 2-1/2 hours.

Of course, this is the Arctic, a place where shite still happens. A single AN-74 is shuttling the entire marathon field, along with various expeditions, tourists, and Guinness World Record aspirants between Svalbard and the Pole.  A delay on the outbound departure leads to a crowd of restless runners snarking in the lobby of the Radisson Blu for hours.  Our flight back to Longyearbyen was delayed over 24 hours when a metre-wide crack appeared across the runway, revealing the ocean below.  “You get an extra night at the North Pole – for free!”

Q: Did you see the Northern Lights?

No, in April it’s broad daylight the entire time.  Even in Longyearbyen the sun was only below the horizon for a couple hours, so it never got dark.

Q: Was it a high-altitude race?

No, it’s on the sea ice, so basically sea level plus a few feet.

Q: Did you see Santa’s Workshop?

No, nobody gets in there.  Santa’s Workshop is locked down like Area 51.


North Pole Playlist on YouTube


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Although my old self was hard to find

Bunbury 3 Waters Marathon, Western Australia

April 9, 2017

There’s a bite in the air (it gets chilly here at night on the shorefront) and the sky is lightening as I make Gullmy way down to the clubhouse at the edge of the green playing field roped off into a starter chute and decked with vertical flags.  A local runner helps me figure out the drop boxes for my handful of GUs and energy bars; one is located at the finish arch, which all marathoners have to pass through on the first lap, and the other at the table just across the street. 

My friend Clive has come down from Perth to cheer me on, which will prove vital later.  The ultra runners have gone on their way; I ditch my Galloping Gertie pullover and join the marathon corral.  It’s a small field of about 100 that takes off at 7:30, describing a half oval around the field before passing under the arch and out onto the street as the sun is just climbing into the sky.

I know this is going to be a tough grind due to my lack of training.  I’ve done my math and I have my strategy.  I can finish under the cutoff with a 2 mile run / half mile walk ratio if I keep my walk at a brisk 16:00 pace.  Just as important – I need to not get caught up in the excitement and keep my running pace down to where I can sustain it, preferably between 11:00 and 12:00.

The course parallels the Indian Ocean for 5 miles before looping inland to circle the eucalyptus-shaded Bunbury Big Swamp conservation area.  I’ve fallen in with two younger women and for the time being discarded any walk breaks because the morning is pleasant and the conversation enjoyable.  Running a marathon while talking about running other marathons: it’s what runners do.

Back out to the seaside road (hi Clive!) we continue south up a long shallow grade to a turnaround.  It’s here I let the other ladies go ahead as my pace has been a bit quicker than I’m comfortable with, and settle into “solo runner” mode.  Past the clubhouse, a twisty hilly bit around the lighthouse, and between miles 7 and eight an out-and-back on a jetty where raucous white cockatoos clamour and hang upside down from the streetlights.  The northern leg of the course goes out and back through parks, past open-air restaurants that will fill with Sunday brunchers, and a little loop through suburbia before the return.  (Note: Aussie public loos talk to you and play sappy 70’s ballads.)Photo by Clive Chaote

Running through the arch I’ve completed the first lap in good time, about 2:32, and here is where the grind begins.  Stopping for a drink and to grab a Picky Bar, I lose momentum and am struggling to keep my pace below 13:00.  Making the second loop around the wildlife preserve I’m all alone and feel like I’m the last person.  There’s a black swan floating by, the first one I’ve seen on this trip, and two birds like deep blue iridescent coots.  I concentrate on keeping the legs going.  This time on the southbound uphill I take a walk break, but am alarmed to find I’m not able to keep a 16:00 pace.  Back to the shuffle run.  My friend rides by on his bike.  “How are you feeling?”  Effing tired, that’s what.

But my name’s on my bib so I get personalized attagirls from the volunteers and occasional spectator, and Clive’s apparently told them that I came all the way from Arizona.  It’s nearing noon as I launch into the north leg for the second time, and getting warm (along with the seaside humidity).  The cockatoos have retreated to the trees, reduced to grumbling under their breath.  Around mile 22 I do some head math and drop to a walk.  I have enough time left on the clock that I can walk it in and still make the cutoff.  I can do this.  Runners passing me on the return from the turnaround offer words of encouragement:  “Keep ticking it over!”

All the out-and-backs on this course mean that I now know exactly how many people are behind me:  a husband and wife from Singapore running a marathon a month; a barefoot runner named Geoff in bush attire (think Crocodile Dundee with a beard); and a man that I don’t know any interesting facts about, sorry.  Approaching the lighthouse for the last time, I hear footsteps behind me: the Singapore woman passes me at the steady pace she’s held all day.  Well, good on her.

Less than a hundred feet from the finish I hear footsteps again.  It’s too much.  I pick up my pace and start running.  “Still some gas left in the tank!” says Geoff.  The two of us accelerate ridiculously down the chute in a crazy ass sprint to the finish line, finishing neck and neck at 5:54:03. 

FinisherAustralia!  My sixth continent!  Done and dusted!




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It’s Only a Whimsical Notion

SAM_3843 - Copy

Rio de Janeiro Marathon

May 29, 2016

This race was a late addition to my 2016 plan, due largely because some running clubs don’t consider Rapa Nui to be proper South America; I’m glad I did, though, not least because of the needed bounce it gave me following my Shotover Moonlight disappointment.

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro after an overnight flight from Houston, I have just enough time to decompress, throw on my running gear, and join the rest of the Marathon Tours group for an afternoon “warm-up” run along the Ipanema promenade.  It’s a holiday in Brazil, so the street in front of the hotel is closed off and crammed with bathers, walkers, strollers, vendors, skateboards, surfboards, diners, bicycles, children, parents, umbrellas, all milling about chaotically like atoms in a cup of warm tea.  It’s look sharp and every runner for herself as we dive and dodge to avoid collision!  The more ambitious runners head northwards to Copacabana, but I settle for 3 sleep-lagged miles up and down the beach.

Friday and Saturday are for sightseeing.  I pass on the hang gliding, not wanting to risk an injury right before a marathon, but I’m reminded this was something I really wanted to do when I was a teenager and not old enough.  Well, if I had a “bucket list”, that just went back on it.  Saturday night I join a small group going out to Anna’s, a terrific Italian place not far from the hotel, to load up on pasta.

Race Day

Yes, the race packet included spaghetti!

Yes, the race packet included spaghetti!

Sunday morning arrives dark and early, since it’s an hour’s ride to the start line.  Our tour guide has awesomely arranged for the hotel to provide us a grab-and-go breakfast well before normal hours, and the lobby that’s been haunted by Louis Vuitton models (no, really) all weekend is now filled with colorful runners.

The sun is rising as our private bus drops us off at Praça do Pontal park. I have to say this is my first race where I’ve seen surfboards wander through the staging area!  This being a small field of around 8,000, it’s easy to find a spot to cheer on the elites as they tear off half an hour before the rest of us.  Then I take a photo for a Brazilian lady posing putting on her lipstick in front of the starting arch.  You go sassy lady!

At last we’re off, flanked by a camera drone, and heading southward for a quick loop before heading back north towards Rio.  Suddenly there are cobblestones and people holding signs reading ciudad! and something else in Portuguese that probably refers to this half-block of mini-bollards the pack finds itself mincing its way through.

Most of the race course follows the coast road that runs between the high-rise hotels and the beach, with occasional jogs inland.  The first four miles, though, are undeveloped, with the sea to the right and a lagoon to the left, and a fresh morning breeze ameliorating the effects of the sun, already beating though still low in the sky.  Every now and then a food shack passes on the right, not yet open for business.  Surprisingly for smaller marathon, it takes a long time for the field to start spreading out, and there’s a lot of elbow bumping and general jostling.  (I later saw on Facebook where one of the official buses got lost on the way to the start, so some of the crowding could have been latecomers filtering up through the pack.)

About six miles in we hit the first hotel strip and suddenly I’m running alongside a city bus, and it’s a toss-up as to which one of us will win as a typical Brazilian traffic jam is in progress.  Then I’m through the first “built-up” stretch, up a freeway ramp and then it’s a climb to the blessed cool of the first tunnel, where it’s apparently tradition for runners to scream at the top of their lungs.  A few miles on, in the next tunnel, Beethoven is blasting.  We emerge on a cliffside high above the surging ocean and descend to the next stretch of beach.

From here on in the heat is in earnest, climbing to nearly 80 (F) by the finish.  There seem to be more water stations than I remember from the course map, and the volunteers are fairly aggressive about passing them out, or maybe I just look like hell in the second half.  Water is provided in foil-sealed cups, and sports drink in bags that must be ripped open with the teeth.  It takes be several before I get the hang of getting most of the drink in me, rather than on me.

At some point in here I had to go looking for a safety pin as my bib blew out one of its holes and was left dangling lopsided from my bib holder.  Note to self: learn to say “safety pin” in the local language before a marathon.  One of the volunteers does provide me with a pen, which I use to punch a new hole in the bib that I can thread onto the holder and be on my way.

Past the hotel at Ipanema, on to Copacabana and the final stretch of beach.  It’s very hot and surreal in these last miles; there’s tents, and a guy playing a grand piano, and pedestrians criss-crossing the course – I narrowly miss bowling into a man and his baby daughter idly turning figure-eights on a bicycle – and the only food station on the route.  Oranges, IIRC, and what look like pita crackers.  Just before the final tunnel and still a few miles from the finish, a knot of runners line the course, offering high fives and words of encouragement.

Around the beach to the peninsula and the green park and cheering runners and it’s a Xeno’s arrow kind of finish, the finish line always just around the corner, but eventually I cross it, melting and salty.  I collect my medal, fruit, and water, happy that I remembered to pack sandals in my drop bag, and join the rest of the group at the Marathon Tours flag.

5:26:43, not my best time, but not my worst either.

Some final notes

For all the zika scare, I didn’t see a single mosquito the entire week, either in Rio or in Iguazu after the race.  There was a 24-hour stomach bug going around the hotel that caused some runners to drop their distance, and others had probleIMG_1812 - Copyms with the heat, so your basic stuff that happens.

Although the expo has a separate packet pickup for foreigners, it’s really a local event; most of the pre-race materials are in Portuguese only, and one of the two official photography sites only accepts Brazilian-style addresses.

Contrary to what I heard at the time, there’s really no overlap between this course and the 2016 Olympic Marathon course.  The Olympic course is a three-lap loop that has its turnaround in the same green park where the Rio Marathon finishes.

Garmin Activity


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That Was Patrol, This is the War

Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon

February 20, 2016  Hill (1024x768)

To be clear. Before I begin, to explain why what I suspect will be a very fragmented race report is that way, I DNF’d on this one.  Did so spectacularly.  And yet I’m not embarrassed to say that this marathon kicked my ass.


My very first marathon was the Lost Dutchman, my 50th birthday present to myself.  Another milestone, for my 55th I treat myself to a few days in Tahiti, where it proceeds to pour rain for the next three days.  I spend most of the time reading and drinking coffee on my balcony overlooking the restless ocean, but do manage a short road run up the hill behind the hotel, in half an hour soaking my gear to where it takes 24 hours and the application of a hair dryer to undampen them.

Thursday & Friday

A little apartment on a hill overlooking Lake Wakatipu is my home for the next few days, or rather it’s my luggage’s home. After packet pickup and the mandatory gear check, I drop my rental car at the finish line at Moke Lake and join the other runners, Kiwis and Aussies all, taking the overnight option at Ben Lomond Lodge.  The marathon is run on the massive Ben Lomond sheep station in New Zealand’s South Island, the only time this private farmstead is open to the public.

Following a hearty family-style dinner and convo at the Lodge, complete with venison vindaloo and other delights, we toddle off for the night to the A-frame cabins, across a meadow that cries out for you to recreate the spinning Julie Andrews Sound of Music opening scene. NZ observes daylight saving time so it’s still dark when I get up the next morning and I’m not prepared for the sky full of stars here in the heights of the Remarkables mountain range, far from the lights of Queenstown.

With the pinkening of the cloud scraps in the eastern sky come the helicopters bearing those who stayed at Moonlight Lodge further up the mountain. In short order we’re all packed up and flying down Skipper’s Canyon towards the start line, the green-and-yellow hills, so similar in form to the mountains of the Sonoran desert, rising up from the grey foaming Shotover River, the pilot pointing out highlights of the race route as we go.  We’re still under a weather watch, a big storm system poised to break rain across the mountains sometime today.  If the race officials decide it’s too risky, the race can be halted or the marathoners told to drop to the 30K course at any time.  For now the morning is gorgeous, sunlight turning the tops of the hills, and I’m feeling ready.

Rainbow over Stoney Creek Siphon. Tiny figures of runners along single track.I haven’t been able to practice on all the same terrain that this marathon covers – in particular, the river crossings in Arizona generally don’t have water in them – but between driving up to Flagstaff over the summer and working my way up to 20 miles at the Aravaipa trail races around Phoenix, I feel like I can handle this. I expect to be slower than my training runs, but that’s OK.  I can finish.

The Challenge

The race starts on the rocky beach below Skipper’s Canyon bridge. A hundred-odd runners surge across the stones, then bottleneck on a short, steep, narrow trail bounded by thick vegetation; it levels out and is very cruisy for a few minutes, then opens out onto another beach, mixed stones, grass, and brush: not so cruisy.  Up another steep hill and then single track along a barren ridgeline, scree slopes falling steeply off to either side and nothing but the sky above.  After a while the course, marked by pink ribbons, moves to a trail halfway down a steep green slope.  A sheep, unseen uphill, bleats, and I laugh.  The field of runners towards the rear spreads out, and I’m mostly on my own with the occasional companion.  AWe dip down into a wooded area straight out of Middle Earth, and some minor stream crossings that are nothing compared to what will be coming up later.

Somewhere around the 10K mark, I think, I discover that the companions I’ve been keeping pace with are running the 30K, as they split to go ahead on the level, and I’m directed right to climb up to another ridgeline. I find myself on a near-vertical slope covered in huge tussocks of saw grass taller than me, with no track other than occasional glimpses of pink ribbon at the top of long wires.  It’s a time-consuming and sweary struggle to get through, and I’m exhausted by the time I get to the top.  Nevertheless I pick things back up and run the length of the ridge to the drinks station at the far end.

This is the top of the world, the view of green hills stretching beneath for mile upon mile, a brisk gale snapping the pink ribbons and spitting rain. The gal at the drinks station gives me the pep talk, points out the road that I’ll be dropping down to, and will eventually take me to Ben Lomond Lodge, the slightly-past-halfway point.  I’m concerned; there’s a cutoff time I have to meet at the Lodge, my time’s not been great and I’ve just lost a bunch of time coming up that slope.  I head down the slope towards the road, and it’s just as steep as the ascent, and although the tussocks are far smaller I’m terrified of rolling an ankle and sprawling head over heels for hundreds of feet.Forest (1024x768)

…and here is where my memory gets muddy. I think there were some more forests, some river wading, more climbing up to ridge trails.  Suffice to say this course doesn’t really have any “easy” bits.  At the next checkpoint the volunteers aren’t as encouraging.  “Do you want to drop down to the 30K course?” they ask.  I consider.  How far to the Lodge if I keep going? 5K is the answer.  The cutoff is really looking unlikely at this point, but for 5K I’m game… except it isn’t 5K.  It’s 5 miles.  There’s another dip down into forest, a mud pit where I sink to my knees and fall over, thoroughly coated, a river crossing higher than my knees, a ladder…. It’s raining, I’m too drained to keep up a running pace, ready to pack it in… and still no effing Lodge!

Finally I see a farm building up ahead and drag up to it. It looks different somehow.  A voice calls out, “Do you want a ride down to Ben Lomond?”  FML, this isn’t even Ben Lomond Lodge, it’s Moonlight Lodge!

And so the injured, the weary, and the less fleet of foot cram wetly into a couple of ATVs for the moderately scary ride to the finish line at Moke Lake, where there is coffee and sushi and a place to change into dry clothes; and where I give another runner a lift back into town in exchange for helping me keep on the left hand side of the road.

EpilogSadly awaiting the ride to the finish line.

I hope this recap doesn’t discourage anyone. The course for the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon is breathtaking, but way out of my league.  Note that the 30K option covers the same territory, but without the climbs up to the ridgelines.  I spent the week following the race exploring the white sand beaches of the southern coastline, an area known as the Catlins, nursing the nasty head cold I got from my frolic in the Remarkables, and revising my 7 Continents plans, since I wasn’t able to tick off Australia/NZ this year.

Tips if you go

On the mandatory gear list, “thermal” means thermal underwear aka longjohns, like you’d buy from WIntersilks or Land’s End. “Survival bag” is an insulating silver mylar bag (not a blanket) large enough to crawl inside.  There are shops on Shotover Street where you can pick up anything you’re missing.

There is no cell phone coverage at Moke Lake and no transport provided back to town from the finish. You can drop a car at the finish like I did, or bum a ride with someone.

The event is established and well-run, but there was apparently some problem that kept race confirmations from going out to some entrants, and blocked email from certain servers from reaching the director. This wasn’t a problem with the Ben Lomond Lodge or any of the other NZ businesses I had email contact with.

The course map for the marathon is released only a few days before the event, and then only in person (in order to discourage runners “scouting out” the route on private land), but here’s an elevation profile to whet your appetite:

elevation profile

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Up up up up to the heaviside layer

Flagstaff Summer Running Series 2015

ShoesMotivation is hard to come by in central Arizona in the summer, especially when you’re not training for anything in particular in the fall.  This year I signed up for the Flagstaff summer series to get a little break from the heat in the cool mountains up north.  With the exception of BBBS, these were all quickies where I drove up Friday night, ran in the morning, and drove back home the same day.  Here’s how they broke out:

May 9 – Run for the Mountain 5K – A late-season cold front dropped 3 inches of snow on Ft. Tuthill Park overnight.  It made for a beautiful and invigorating run through the pines.  Many people enjoyed the traditional root beer float at the finish; I appreciated the coffee!

June 6 – NACA Sacred Mountain Prayer Run 10K – No snow, but heavy rain the night before.  A tough slog as always up that first hill to the plateau, then frolicking through gooey mud patches to be welcomed back down the hill by the beat of the big drum.  Very nice long-sleeved tech shirt, which I wore on the run thanks to a little more chill in the air than usual.

June 13 – Blackout Night Run 13K* – OK, this Aravaipa event isn’t part of the Flagstaff Summer Series.  My friend D convinced me to slide this one into my schedule, bringing along my tent to camp a few hundred yards from the start/finish in Ft. Tuthill Park.  13K, a single loop, is the shortest distance on offer.  The new moon guaranteed awesome star vistas out on Observatory Mesa, the kind that make you pull off the trail and stare straight upwards gaping.

June 27 – Vista Hospice Run for Life 10K – I love running through this part of suburban Flag and envying everyone’s gardens.  Friendly residents come out to the curb to offer cheers, sprinklers, or squirts from the garden hose.

August 1 – Machine Solutions Run for Kids 10K – back at Ft. Tuthill again, and this time I manage to trip halfway through and do a Superman, scraping generous patches of skin off my left palm and both knees.  Two gentlemen help me get to my feet and I complete the second half of the course, winding through meadows crazy with wildflowers.

August 8 – Big Brothers Big Sisters Dave McKay Memorial Half Marathon – Flagstaff got an entire August’s worth of rain dumped on it overnight, requiring the volunteers to go out and re-mark the course before dawn.  (The two vehicles seen sunk in the mud at mile 6 may have been part of that effort.)  I’ll be up front and admit that I was not ready for this race, knew it going in, and was grateful not to be the last person off the mountain.

August 22 – Gaspin’ in the Aspen 5K : The weather was perfect for the last event of the series, a sprightly gambol through the meadows at the Flagstaff Nordic Center.  At around 8000 ft this course is a little higher in elevation than the other races in the series.  So yes, I did plenty of gaspin’!

Overall the series was a lot of fun, and a nice bunch of breaks from the heat down in the Valley.

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A Million Miles Away It Seemed From All of Eternity

Antarctic Ice Marathon

November 22, 2014

Dear reader, you have arrived at this page for one of two reasons: 1. you are a regular reader of my running blog, or 2. you have signed up for or are considering the Antarctic Ice Marathon, and doing your research.  Welcome!  Any questions you may have, no matter how trivial, plop them in the comments below and I will answer them!

The straightaway

Nine months, now, since I boarded the Ilushin-76 in Punta Arenas with my fellow runners, bound for the icy center of the Last Continent.  My how time flies when you’re procrastinating.  See, I’ve just found it so difficult to put into words, this experience that’s so outside the pale of my everyday life. The few days at Union Glacier Camp seem so much sharper, brighter, than what went before or after.  Writing about them using my usual, linear race report style just feels wrong.

Wasn’t it cold?  Well, yes; it was about 15 F/-9 C the day of the marathon, and that was the warmest day.  But that wasn’t my major overall impression of Antarctica.  I remember specific things, like adding a second thermal layer on the bottom after a checkout run, when my butt went numb after 5K.  Snow tracked into the sleeping tents never melted, and phones had to be kept inside your sleeping bag if you wanted it alive to wake you up in the morning.

What struck me most, and what stayed with me after, was the stillness.  The Absence not just of the background hum of electricity and traffic but of birds, dogs, insects, so far south that no life survives.  When the wind drops and the clouds lift, there’s just the rustle of your own clothing and the white plain stretching for miles to blue-etched mountains under an empty blue sky.  The sun circles high in the sky, never setting, and it all seems to take place in a timeless sliver totally disconnected from the world and its history.  Coming upon an aid station with hot drinks and biscuits in the middle of this nothingness was both surreal and absolutely fitting.

How was the course?  Was it tough?  I found it incredibly difficult.  Even though the course was groomed (and carefully checked for crevasses by the glacier camp staff), we’d had several days of blowing snow up until the day of the marathon, and so there were a few inches to maybe a foot of powder on top of the ice, which made it much like running in sand.  My calves and lats were protesting from the get-go.  Eventually the niggles built to where I just slowed it way down and made finishing without injury my goal.  It was my slowest marathon ever by a long shot, but when I neared the finish line, and all the happy drunk finishers came tumbling out into the cold from the party that had been rolling in the dining tent for hours just to cheer me in, it was the greatest feeling in the world!  It was after midnight and full daylight, and I polished off a bowl of seafood stew and hushpuppies and fell into my sleeping bag.

How long does it take to get to Antarctica?  Well, the private flight from PA to Union Glacier was about 5 hours.  As for my flights from Phoenix to PA –ugh, don’t ask.  It was fraught with unnecessary excitement, exacerbated by the merger of American and USAirways.

Did you see any penguins?  Yes, I did, just not in Antarctica – Union Glacier is too far south for any animal life!  Punta Arenas has several Magellanic penguin colonies and I made a trip out to the one at Seño Otway.  They are cute little boogers, especially when they’re making the cross-country waddle between the beach and their burrows.  I also took the tour out to the king penguin colony on Tierra del Fuego, although I don’t recommend doing this the day before a flight home as rough seas caused the local naval authority to suspend return ferry service for hours and we didn’t get back to our hotels till well after midnight.

A word now about the organizers.  The organization of this event is outstanding, from race director Richard Donovan and crew handling the logistics of getting two score runners there and back again with all the weather delays and other uncertainties involved in travel to the Far South, to the ANI staff at Union Glacier Station keeping you warm, fed, and above all safe, all the while doing a yeoman job of keeping the site pristine.

Oh, and a word about my fellow adventurers:  it takes a special breed of idiot to fly to the middle of Antarctica to run a marathon.  Most of them have far more inspirational stories than mine.  The camaraderie was great.

Finally, here’s a little video to give you a taste of my adventure.  Most of the photos are mine, but I slipped in a few by official race photog Mike King:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbpk1feuxYg

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AJHS Rhythm Run – 9/21/13

Apache Junction, Arizona, USA

Band on the Run

Banner - AJ Rhythm Run

This 8K trail run at the Rodeo Grounds to raise funds for the Apache Junction High School marching band is new this year, and it has the setting and the volunteers to make it a successful annual event. The inaugural race suffered somewhat from a case of disorganitis, but hopefully next year they’ll get the publicity machine started earlier and attract the participation this cause deserves. So much better than buying band candy!

If you’ve run the Lost Dutchman 8K, you’re familiar with the terrain – hardpack desert along with lots of loose rock, sand, and gullies, and a noticeable headwind on the easterly stretches of the course. (With all that sand, I think I’ve found the place to train for Antarctica w/o having to drive to California or Sonora for a beach to run on!) The temps had cooled down to where it made a pleasant early morning run in the desert.

(Note to self: Going to Coach’s happy hour the night before a race is not a recipe for a new PR.)

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ARR I-Did-a-Green-Run 5K – 9/15/2013

Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Dragged a comb across my head

This is the “free” race that you get when you join ARR, along with the nifty running log/calendar. Having sat out the ARR Summer Series, this was my “big” kickoff for the fall season. Unfortunately a summer’s worth of staying up past my bedtime and sleeping in past dawn ingrained a bad habit, and I woke up less than an hour before bib pickup closed at Reach 11, forty minutes away! I have never dressed so fast in my life, and I don’t remember what breakfast was.

I’m glad I picked the 5K because my glutes were super sore from Sh’bam the day before (also from crawling around cutting fabric), and it’s still hot enough out here – 90 degrees by 9:00 per my car’s thermometer – that I felt like I was melting while picking up my post-race nosh. ARR organizers had to scramble at the last minute to redraw the course after last weekend’s rains opened small canyons on some of the trails, but it really wasn’t noticeable.

Official time: 30:24. Not a PR, not terrible. Two more races for September!

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Vigilante Days 10K – 8/11/2013

Tombstone, Arizona, USA

I did not shoot the deputy


A small-town Arizona race to see off the summer and get back in the groove after Bay of Fundy.

The thing that always surprises me about these historic “Old West” towns is how small the historic district is – in the case of Tombstone, the original township site is no more than a few blocks square. There’s not much modern town around it, either; most of the course for this race runs through rural desert where people decorate their yards as whimsically as they please because there’s not a HOA as far as the eye can see.

The race is organized by the local historical re-enactor society, the Tombstone Vigilantes. The field of about 100 mostly local runners gathers at the gazebo in the little patch of park next to the old OK Corral site. I’m noticing a distinct pain in my lower left back so yeah, not going for any kind of a PR today. We’re instructed to line up on the white line… no, not that white line, the other white line. A gunshot start, and we’re off on a loop through the aforementioned historic district, and quickly out onto Camino San Rafael. The Chihuahuan desert is beautiful and green after the recent rains, and there’s a light cloud cover too. It lasts until late in the race, so I don’t take advantage of the misters thoughtfully set up at the aid stations until I’m on the return leg.

I’d felt a little miffed when one of the Vigilantes went out of his way to warn me this “isn’t a flat race”. Do I look like a wimp? Around Mile 4 I fully appreciate his warning as I hit “the hill too tough to climb” on the return. Yeah, definitely not a PR today. Still, the weather is nice and I pick it up again when I’m back on the straightaway. A turn to the left, there’s Crazy Annie’s Bordello again so I must be almost there… and back down the main drag of Tombstone to the finish!

Garmin time: 1:10:00 [No official time – they were having “issues” with the stopwatch and nothing’s been posted to the website]

A side note, even though this was a small race they had awards in the form of a wooden tombstone, 3 deep in each age group.

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Bay of Fundy Marathon – 6/23/13

Lubec, Maine, USA & Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada

Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’

Tucked away in the northernmost corner of Downeast Maine, the small town of Lubec provided a picturesque and friendly environment for this run. The organization was outstanding, especially given the logistics involved in a two-country marathon; you’d hardly have known this was the inaugural event.


Getting there from Phoenix was almost as involved as an overseas trip; red-eye to Bangor via Philly, overnight at the Bangor airport hotel, and then a 3-hour drive up the coast to Lubec. I settled into my room at West Quoddy Station, then drove up to the Lighthouse for a look around tomorrow’s starting line before heading into town. Packet pickup is at the high school, but bibpickup is at the Campobello Visitor’s Center on the Canadian side of the border – it’s a clever way to make sure that all marathon runners have to pass through the Customs checkpoint, show their passports and get their names ticked off a list both ways. Like many others I park on the US side and walk across, to get a preview of “the hill” on the other side of the bridge.

Back at the high school, a ukulele band with a wide repertoire is entertaining the line into the lobster dinner and pasta feed. (The lobster dinner was extra and didn’t include pasta, so not your traditional “carb-loading” dinner.) Dessert is a pile of homemade goodies including cookies and baklava. One of the volunteers kindly gives me a lift back to the Station so I can leave my rental car at the school. There’s a shuttle from the school to the start tomorrow but since I’m staying right on the route there’s some confusion about what time they’re closing the road.

Sunrise comes early on the eastern edge of the continent, so it’s full daylight as I walk the one mile to the start along tree-lined coastal road. About every ten minutes a yellow school bus full of runners passes. Yesterday was overcast but it’s beautiful and clear now and not cold at all. At the start runners are milling around, debating the merits of the portaloos vs the park outhouse, and running down to the lighthouse photo ops. Some fellow One Run For Boston peeps notice my ORFB shirt; they’re going to be running legs in Massachusetts next week. “You’re one of those badasses who ran in the desert!” Uh, badass, me? I don’t think so.

The race:

Although my target pace for the marathon is 10:40, I don’t feel bad about starting off in the 9:30 range since the early stretch is a gradual downhill. It’ll get tough enough later on. Classic New England seaside houses sit back from the road, their occupants come out with homemade signs to cheer us on, or wave from their distant balconies. Blue and purple lupins line the way.

At mile four we turn right onto Main Street and head into town. “Welcome runners/Fresh strawberry pie” says a readerboard outside a restaurant. Spectators gather on the sidewalks, some behind tables selling lemonade and spanakopita. “Run For Peace” “Push here for Turbo power!” “Go, random stranger!!!” Blink and you’ll miss it – it’s downtown Lubec! The largest crowd is here on Water Street, right before the bridge. There’s a guy banging on a djembe – I hear a lot of “Go Boston!’ and then “Go Nancy!” Wait, how do they know my name? Oh yeah, it’s on my bib!

Over the bridge and onto Campobello Island! Here, at mile six, is where it starts to get tough. There’s that first big hill, then rolling hill after hill after that, and the road is pretty heavily cambered as well. The elevation profile doesn’t really look that bad; I think it’s just that the hills never end from this point on. I slow to my target pace and maintain that until about mile 14, when it really starts to drag.

Sometimes, where the road dips it opens out into a craggy cove on the left or the right, with maybe a clapboard house or some lobster boats that make me feel like I’m running through a Bob Ross painting. The course across the Island is sprinkled with spectators, clustering outside small shops and B&Bs. There’s even Santa Claus, in a more summery outfit than usual.

Mile 16 is the turnaround at the northern end of the island. I briefly glimpse the other lighthouse; its lamp appears to be lit and there is a bit of a fog coming in. There’s also a light rain on the way back down the island. I’m walking the hills now, and to keep myself going I start growling every time I have to walk, to the consternation of some of my fellow racers who are also taking walk breaks. I’ve hit the proverbial Wall, but I’m bound and determined to pull this one in under 5 hours.

Finally I’m heading down The Hill, the far shore visible in the distance. As I pass over the bridge I look down to see the famous Bay of Fundy tide rushing under my feet. A right onto Water Street, a few hundred yard more, and I’m across the finish line in 4:53:49! Woot!


A volunteer wraps me in tinfoil and bundles me off to the library to warm up. When I emerge, the crafts fair around the finish line is breaking down as the temperature has dropped, the wind picked up and the fog rolled in. I get a hunk of smoked salmon on a stick from one of the vendors, then into a coffee shop for a hot sweet coffee that the chasier gives me free of charge – the people here are so nice!

The general buzz amongst the runners afterwards was “Those hills were tough – I can’t wait to do it again!” Some were even booking their rooms for next year – kind of a necessity when 800 runners and their crew descend on a town of 1,600. I had a great time and was proud to tough it out and break the 5-hour barrier. One day I will run a flat marathon – really!

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